The enduring image of French cuisine is a man in a chef's toque creating haute cuisine in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The enduring image of Mexican cuisine is a family in a ramshackle house with the women laboring over the stews, soups and tortillas that are the very soul of Mexican food. Put that family's main man behind the stove and Birrieria Bernal—located on what gringos might think of as the wrong side of the tracks in Rosarito—captures that image.
The first thing to know about Bernal (Carretera Libre Tijuana-Rosarito, two doors south of the more northerly of the two overpasses on the east side of the road, 664-503-03-30) is that it's only open on weekends. Daniel Bernal, the chef, works elsewhere on weekdays (construction, if my crappy Spanish served me). The second thing to know is that you should order either the signature goat stew (birria) or the menudo rojo (with or without the foot). There are other things on the menu—quesadillas, tacos and consommé—but they're not what you came for. Really. If you're at Bernal for something other than birria or menudo, you probably meant to go somewhere else.
While Bernal brands itself around its birria de chivo—there are pictures of goats on the street-side exterior wall and signage—the menudo is the place's great glory and hottest seller. You can arrive at 10 a.m. and expect to score birria. Menudo? Not so much. Menudo is tripe and pig's foot (optional) in a rich pork broth spiked with toasted and rehydrated dried Guajillo chiles and dotted with kernels of hominy maize. The dish is served with condiments including minced white onion, cilantro and limes with two salsas—one hinting at mole, the other bearing the intense nuclear burn of arbol chiles. Bernal's menudo broth features a richer, more savory flavor profile than most. The tripe also has a meatier texture—neither overly toothsome nor cooked to indistinguishable, flavorless mush— and is nearly devoid of the mineral qualities that shout "offal."
The best way to enjoy the menudo is with a spoon in the right hand and one of Bernal's astonishingly good tortillas in the left hand, dipping to absorb and enjoy the broth between bites of tripe. These are yellow (not white) corn tortillas made from scratch on the premises. They taste intensely, deeply, passionately of corn. They may not be on the menu, but they make the menu.
Bernal's birria is every bit as good as the menudo. Goat meat—no more gamey than lamb— is slow-cooked in broth with cinnamon, clove and vinegar, yielding a thick, rich and almost exhilarating stew. Again, the tortillas provide a perfect counterpoint. It's comfort food that's just as complex as high-end restaurant dishes. Savory? Check. Sweet? Check. Sour? Check. Hints of bitter and umami, too.
The buzz about Baja cuisine has been, in large part, brought on by the BajaMed movement, and with very good reason. But we can't let a place like Birrieria Bernal be lost in that process. It's the heart of Mexican cuisine.